By Jean Clark
Many of a certain age were admonished as children to “clean our plates because of the starving Armenians who had no food.” Most knew nothing about the Armenians, starving or otherwise, until they were much older.
Last month, an interim pastor, Nayiri Karjian, who is of Armenian descent, came to serve the Pleasant Hill Community Church, UCC, until a new senior minister is called. Bruce Schoup, a member of the Community Church, is serving as a missionary teacher/chaplain at Haigazian University in Beirut, Lebanon, which had been established by the joint endeavors of the Armenian Missionary Association of America and the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East. As part of her faith journey, Pastor Karjian had attended Haigazian before pursuing her divinity education in the United States. Haigazian University is home campus to students from 20 countries of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Schoup is the director of spiritual life for more than 900 students who are primarily Christian, but do include an increasing number of Muslims. He described his experiences this past year in front of a background slideshow depicting student activities.
As the university is primarily a commuter school, the students are involved in their own churches on the weekends. Campus worship is an extra layer of spirituality. A Wednesday chapel service is student led with a wide variety of worship styles. There might be a praise band, a biblical drama,or discussion of books and ideas. They have a deeper religious connection than the average American of the same age. There is a belief in God and a respect for religion that seems broader than in the U.S.
The classes are taught in English and most of the students are multi-lingual. Business is the number one major, followed by psychology, education and theology. There are five Armenian churches in Lebanon, and they all have schools, four as colleges. Lebanon’s biggest export is considered its educated workers.
There has been a large influx of Syrian Armenians because of the ongoing violence in that country. Armenians are known for taking care of each other, and there is financial aid available for these young people whose families often have to leave everything behind. Part of Schoup’s responsibility is interviewing those students seeking financial aid and helping in that decision. There are obvious tent villages and the less obvious — living with family and friends in Beirut. The zone of what is perceived as “safe” in Lebanon has shrunk.
Schoup has to develop two and three plans for each activity with his students. This is a part of the world where much can quickly change. The longer he is there, the more he identifies and learns about some of the places with interesting Christian connections, many of which are in those areas that are perceived as unsafe. They also are places not commonly visited by the Lebanese. Lebanon continues to be overwhelmed with more than its share of problems: political, social and economic. The military is respected but has been kept weak by its neighbors. Lebanon has not completely rebuilt since its own civil war and the 2006 war with Israel.
Near the end of his program, Schoup invited Karjian to add her observations to his remarks. She affirmed his comments and told a little of her family’s background. Her father was born in Turkey, moving to Syria as a young boy. Her mother’s family had been refugees in Syria during the enforced deportation of Armenians from Turkey almost 100 years ago.
Karjian is an Armenian Christian born and raised in Aleppo, Syria. Her call to ministry and the war in Lebanon brought her to the United States in 1982. She is a graduate of Lancaster Seminary in Pennsylvania and has served eight different congregations in six states.
Historically, most Armenians were Eastern Orthodox Catholics. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), composed of Presbyterian and Congregational mission-minded people, played a decisive role in the rise of the Armenian Evangelical Church. In 1819, the missionaries found that Jews and Muslims were resistant to Protestant evangelizing so they turned their attention to the already Christian Armenians. In 1870, the two denominations that supported the American Board divided the supervision of the mission field. The Congregationalists were to be in charge of the Protestants in Turkey and the Balkan countries, and the Presbyterians were to assume responsibility for Arabic-speaking countries and Iran. Hence the connection with the United Church of Christ (UCC), which was formed from the Congregational, Christian, Evangelical and Reformed Denominations.
Therefore, Schoup and Karjian are both UCC pastors with this common link to the Armenian Evangelical Church. Schoup was born in Gaziantep, Turkey, when his parents served as missionaries there and also formerly in Syria. They retired to Pleasant Hill.